Tomorrow marks 29 years since Denmark achieved one of international football’s great upsets as they defeated Germany to claim the title of champions of Europe.

It was a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that they did not even qualify for the tournament.

The side had finished runners up in qualifying to Yugoslavia, a side hotly tipped to win the tournament.. until their country fell apart.

Today we’re looking at possibly the greatest international side that never was: the great lost generation of Yugoslavia in the 90s.


'All of us young, all of us with 10 to 15 years of possible success ahead of us'

- Siniša Mihajlović

As the side waited in their hotel in central Sweden, the mood was tense.

Just two days after arriving at their camp in order to prepare for the European Championships, the side received the news that the UN had overwhelmingly voted to sanction Yugoslavia. The resolution included a ban on Yugoslav teams being hosted in international sporting events, and a ban on international flights to and from Yugoslavia. The team was stranded.

After two more days of waiting, the squad was given a 24-hour window to return home. The task of getting them out was given to the legendary Yugoslav pilot, Stevan Popov, who had himself just finished airlifting 40,000 people to safety from Sarajevo.

When he landed at Arlanda airport, however, it became clear that no one would refuel their aircraft due to the sanctions. By the time they could find a private source of fuel, the 24-hour deadline was nearing.

What exactly happened next is somewhat dependant on who you ask. What we do know is that the flight took off with all 20 players on board. According to Siniša Mihajlović, as the time ticked towards midnight and with the plane still not in Yugoslav airspace, two fighter jets were scrambled and began motioning for Popov to bring the plane down.

Mihajlović was in the cockpit with Popov and begged the pilot to do as they said. Popov refused. “We are a national football team, they will never shoot us down”. As it turned out Popov was right and the flight made it into Yugoslav airspace shortly after midnight.



The side were famously replaced at the tournament by Denmark, who had finished behind Yugoslavia in their qualifying group - and who subsequently went on to win the tournament.

But for many, the story of what could have been for that outrageously talented batch of players is one of football's great enigmas.

Many of the largely youthful side that was on that flight had first tasted success in the 1987 under-20 World Cup. The Yugoslavian team swept through the tournament unbeaten, defeating each of the three other semi-finalists, as well as eliminating defending champions Brazil along the way.

Much of the ‘87 side, alongside already established stars such as Darko Pančev, Dejan Savićević and
Dragan Stojković, took Yugoslavia all the way to the quarter finals of Italia 90 where they ultimately fell to Maradona’s Argentina on penalties.

In 1991, Red Star Belgrade, one of the region's four powerhouses alongside Dinamo Zagreb, Hajduk Split and Partizan Belgrade, won the European Cup with only a single foreign player in the side.




As Yugoslavia descended into civil war, the stars of the domestic league began to spread to some of Europe’s finest clubs. The list of destinations is especially impressive givn that these transfers happened when many leagues still limited clubs to three or four foreign players.


Where the stars of 92 ended up: 

Siniša Mihajlović - Roma 

Zvonimir Boban - AC Milan (C/L)

Robert Prosinečki - Real Madrid 

Davor Šuker - Sevilla (C/L) 

Predrag Mijatović - Valencia (C/L)

Robert Jarni - Bari

Vladimir Jugović - Sampdoria (C/L) 

Alen Bokšić - Marseille (C/L) 

Darko Pančev - Inter Milan

Dejan Savićević - AC Milan

Dragan Stojković - Marseille


No fewer than five of the players from the side of '92 would play key roles in winning the Champions League for their clubs through the remainder of the 90s, as former Yugoslavians continually cropped up on Ballon D’or shortlists.

Perhaps the best glimpse into what could have been comes from the success of the Croatian national team in the following years. At Euro '96 they reached the quarter finals before going one better and reaching the semi-final of the 1998 World Cup. 

In an alternate reality the stars of Yugoslavia looked poised to have a run akin to that of Spain between 2008 and 2012.

Sadly, we'll always be left wondering, what if.


Words by Andy Gallagher


Back to blog

Leave a comment